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French Secularism — Beyond the Headscarf

Is "laïcité" the French equivalent of "multiculturalism," and if so, is it still an effective way to think about society?

February 9, 2004

Is "laïcité" the French equivalent of "multiculturalism," and if so, is it still an effective way to think about society?

Almost everyone is familiar with the battle cry of the French Revolution: "Liberté, égalité, fraternité" — or "liberty, equality and brotherhood" — which later became the founding principles of the French Republic.

But what most people don't realize is that there was a fourth founding principle of the French Republic: "laïcité."

For the early Republicans, "laïcité" implied the separation of church and state, as reflected in Article 10 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizens (which is the French equivalent to the U.S. Bill of Rights).

This article assures citizens that they should not fear for their beliefs — religious or otherwise — as long as they do not pose a threat to the general security of the nation.

The move toward state secularism in 1789 marked a big change from traditional politics in France, under which the Catholic Church had been a major player.

However, over the course of the 19th century, the Catholic Church worked hard on many fronts to regain lost ground against the secular character of government. In fact, when the Third Republic was established in 1871, one of its biggest internal enemies was the Catholic Church.

Republican leaders in the 1870s thus hoped to reinstate the principle of "laïcité" as a way to unite the whole nation after a century of political upheaval.

Between 1880 and 1905, Republican leaders gradually chipped away at the power of the church. One of the ways by which they did so was to replace the traditional Catholic school system with republican — that is, non-religious — schools across France.

Secular, compulsory and tuition-free, republican schools were designed by the government to spread the civic values of the French nation.

The schools were also designed to suppress regional identities — which were still strong at the time — through compulsory instruction in the French language.

Respect for "laïcité" gradually became a part of the social pact, whereby France's Protestants, Catholics and Jews agreed to give up any emphasis on their religious identities in the public sphere in the spirit of national cohesion.

Today — over 100 years later — the principle of "laïcité" is in crisis again. This time, the threat comes not from the Catholic Church, but from immigrants whose religious practices are perceived as threatening to the very principle of France's valued state secularism.

In particular, the Islamic headscarf has come under attack.

However, the debate over the headscarf is just the tip of the iceberg — and reaches into fundamental questions of how French society is to organize the co-existence of multiple religious and ethnic groups.

In December 2003, the French government sponsored a commission to address various challenges to national unity.

According to their report, "laïcité" today refers not only to the "neutrality" of the state when it comes to religious or spiritual beliefs — but it is a social model that ensures the cohesion of society.

Much like the "melting pot" is part of the U.S. national credo, "laïcité" is the concept that has allowed generations of French immigrants to become French.

By setting aside their particular culture of origin in respect of "neutrality" in the public sphere, generations of Spanish, Polish, Portuguese and Italian immigrants and their children have become "French." For over 100 years, this is the way the French have understood living together in a diverse society.

The problem is that this model no longer seems to work.

France is faced with both the largest Muslim and the largest Jewish population of any European country — and is dealing with the social challenges this presents.

Since decolonization in the 1960s, French immigrants have come from many different countries around the world — and are more and more difficult to assimilate.

According to the commission, respect for "laïcité" has disappeared — and has put the French social model in peril.

It is unfortunate that the debate on "laïcité" has focused almost exclusively on the headscarf. It is easy for people outside of France to see banning headscarves — or other signs of religious affiliation — as discriminatory.

From a U.S. point of view, for example, it seems that the state should actually protect — not ban — the right of people to wear headscarves, crucifixes or skullcaps in school.

But then again, Americans never had to live through a prolonged period where one church essentially dominates all aspects of public life.

Once one understands that the integrity of the French social model is at stake, one has more respect for the French government's point of view.

It is as if a new wave of immigrants were menacing any other country's multiculturalism with their lack of respect for other social groups.

It is the very principle that has united a nation and provided the cornerstone for national identity that is being called into question.

Despite these very good reasons, a law to ban headscarves, crucifixes and skull caps in schools seems to be going too far.

And yet, one can understand that by passing this law, the French government is attempting to enforce respect for the traditional primacy given to social and cultural neutrality in the public sphere.

To its credit, the French government does not pretend that a ban on religious symbols will solve the thorny issue of how to integrate immigrants.

The report it sponsored makes a number of other suggestions, including campaigns to facilitate integration by informing immigrants about "laïcité."

At the same time, the report suggests implementing new measures to accommodate minority populations — such as observing two new school holidays, Yom Kippur and the Eïd-el-Kebir — and offering alternate meals in school cafeterias for Jewish and Muslim children.

Other recommendations include providing alternative housing to replace the urban ghettos where immigrant populations are concentrated.

The report also calls for creating a National School for Islamic Studies, stopping race-related discrimination on the job market, and creating new high school curricula with regards to Arabic language, religious history (including Islam) — and the history of decolonization.

Hopefully, these measures will make the Islamic population feel more welcome, while at the same time enforcing the values of the host society.

France at last seems ready to address some of the deep-seated problems that plague its increasingly diverse society.

Considering a compromise with the immigrant population will do more to mend the social fractures than laws banning signs of faith.

Historically, "laïcité" has been a flexible concept, one that has been adopted for the needs of national unity according to the social and political contexts of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.

Let's hope that it will continue to take into account the needs of the people in the 21st century.